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Venezuela and the United States

The strategic relationship between Venezuela and the United States has changed as rapidly as has Venezuela itself during the latter half of the twentieth century. Before World War II, Venezuela was a relatively typical Latin American state, ruled by a succession of dictators and dependent on the cycles of an agriculturally based economy. As its growing oil wealth changed and modernized Venezuelan society, however, Venezuela became a more important strategic consideration for the United States. As Venezuela began to develop its own limited sphere of influence, the United States began to consider it as a potential strategic partner in the Caribbean area.

The basic strategic assumptions of the two countries, although not identical, tracked closely enough to make possible a supportive and cooperative relationship during the 1960s. As an emerging democracy, Venezuela opposed authoritarian governments of both the right and the left. In the early 1960s, Venezuela came to share the United States conviction that the Castro regime in Cuba presented the most compelling threat to the stability of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuban backing of Venezuelan insurgents confirmed this belief. Counterinsurgency training provided by the United States contributed to the successful quelling of the insurgency by the late 1960s.

During the 1970s, Venezuela and the United States followed more divergent paths with regard to security matters. The global strategy of containing communism drew the United States into a debacle in Vietnam. As the prestige and perceived influence of the United States waned, lesser powers such as Venezuela moved to pursue policies of independent outreach to the Third World. Although largely political in nature, Venezuela's relations among Third World nations had distinct security connotations as well, seeking as they did to promote development within a democratic framework that would yield a broader market for oil exports.

By the 1980s, Venezuela had articulated such a significant range of differences with the United States regarding security matters--on such issues as intervention in the affairs of other states and the relative influence of external versus internal factors on regional stability--that the kind of close identification of interests that characterized the relationship in the 1960s was no longer workable. Nevertheless, the two countries continued to share certain basic strategic interests that bound them in a shifting and sometimes uneasy partnership. These shared interests included: the safety and free passage of shipping through Caribbean sea-lanes; concern for the Caribbean region as a market for exports; a desire to promote political stability by encouraging and supporting democratic governments; and opposing the expansion of Cuban presence and influence.

Some of these shared interests came to the fore in the debate that preceded the United States sale of F-16 jet fighters to the Venezuelan air force in 1983. Despite some concern expressed by such other regional powers as Colombia, the administration of United States president Ronald Reagan pushed for the sale on the grounds that Venezuela needed advanced aircraft to help protect the Caribbean sea-lanes, to secure its oil resources against external attack, and to help secure the approaches to the Panama Canal. The Reagan administration argued that regional allies such as Venezuela should be encouraged to share strategic responsibilities and to complement United States military forces. Military advances in Cuba and Nicaragua, along with the potential at that time for the Soviet Union's military use of an expanded airport base on Grenada, further buttressed these arguments.

Despite such public characterizations of Venezuela as an active contributor to regional defense, both countries accepted the proposition that Venezuela fell under the strategic umbrella of the United States. As crucial as Venezuela's oil resources were to the nation's economic well-being, they were also of significant strategic interest to the United States, the primary consumer. The United States therefore fulfilled the role of unacknowledged guarantor of Venezuelan sovereignty if for no other reason than to maintain access to this important source of petroleum in the Western Hemisphere.

The threat of communist expansion that had undergirded security policy even before the advent of the Castro regime in Cuba appeared to have waned considerably by the 1990s. Nevertheless, it appeared likely that Venezuela and the United States would continue to cooperate in maintaining stability in the Caribbean Basin. Venezuela's economic setbacks, however, seemed to indicate that it would not soon return to the regional prominence it enjoyed in the 1970s.

Data as of December 1990

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